Artists on Coping: Barbara Friedman

During the coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.

Barbara Friedman in front of “Hard Rain” at the opening of “Hauntings”, February 29th, 2020, at Five Myles Gallery, Brooklyn. The show was supposed to be up through March but closed after a week due to the pandemic. Photo from the Bogliasco Foundation’s weekly newsletter courtesy of Arielle Moreau.

Barbara Friedman makes painterly paintings of unreliable narrators in scenarios that are unsettling both narratively and formally. She has had thirty-six solo shows throughout the United States, and reviews of her work have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Sun, The Irish Times, Newsday, Art in America, ARTS Magazine, and Artweek. A group of Friedman’s paintings were selected for the 2007 issue of New American Paintings, and another group for the 2010 issue. She lives, paints, and teaches in New York City, where she has been a professor of art at Pace University since 1983.

AS: How are you coping?

BF: I’m very lucky that my studio is at home, so when the classes I teach aren’t keeping me on Zoom, I do try to paint. This certainly gives me a lot of comfort right now. We’ve lived in our apartment in the Financial District since 1999. The building we’re in is 300 yards away from the World Trade Center, and as a result I had a very hard time dealing with the aftermath of 9/11. In response to that, I’m trying very consciously not to subject my family to my anxieties.

Now, even though over three times as many New Yorkers have died so far from COVID as on 9/11, the virus’s invisibility strangely allows me to sometimes lose myself in the studio or in my teaching.

”Visitation”, oil on linen, 24” x 36”, 2019. Photo courtesy of Rene Pierre Allain.

AS: Has your routine changed?

BF: In some ways my home routine is quite like the routine before the pandemic, aside from the obvious differences. I’m not going to gallery openings or museums or meeting friends for dinner. My husband I are both college professors and now teach remotely a good part of the day, cook more than usual, screen movies or read at night, connect with friends on line, enjoy our dog’s company, clean up around the house a lot more, and talk about cutting each other’s hair. We try to work out in my studio every morning and I catch up with both of my daughters on the phone once or twice a day.

My younger daughter and I are taking Greek together every Monday evening. She and our Greek teacher both used to come over here – now instead we do a three-way Skype class. It’s the new normal, I guess. I’ve always hated the idea of teaching on-line but I’ve had no choice but to quickly adapt to remote learning. Preparing classes for Zoom is time-consuming but it feels great to be able to see my students’ faces and artwork, if only digitally.

When I have free time, I look for moments when I can get into the studio and paint. In the studio, either I’ve been doing watercolors that, for me, are unusually amorphous, or I’ve been attacking two very large paintings that I’d thought were finished but are now becoming increasingly dystopian.

“We can’t have Heaven crammed” and “Bring Home the Bacon” – both in progress in the studio. Photo courtesy of the artist.

AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?

BF: I feel a renewed appreciation for all that I love – my family, my friends; painting; teaching; my students – and deeply grateful that they’re still a part of my life.

Watercolors I’m working on at the moment. Photo courtesy of the artist.

AS: What matters most right now?

BF: My heart is with my family and friends, but it’s also with all those who don’t have the option of working from home. One of my daughters had to go to the hospital just days before social distancing was implemented. It was unrelated to COVID but in retrospect a risky night in the emergency room. Everyone in Brooklyn Methodist’s ER was incredibly kind to us and I keep thinking of all those unmasked medical workers who put our needs before theirs. I wonder whether any of them are sick today.

It’s also hard to imagine a world where public transportation is compromised. As a native New Yorker and a reluctant driver, I’ve always relied on subways and trains, and it’s horrifying to read how little has been done to protect transit workers.Their vulnerability is incredibly sobering.

In one way my family and I have a perfect escape, but we don’t know when we’ll be able to use it: my husband comes from a village on a Greek island, and his father’s family house is there. Greece has managed to stop the coronavirus from spreading, so the fantasy of a summer there is tempting. But one reason Greece has been so successful at controlling the spread of the pandemic is that they’re not letting people who don’t live year-round on the island to go there. It will probably be a long time before we get permission to go, not to mention the question of the safety issues involved in traveling.

“Duo”, oil on linen, 33” x 53.5”, 2019. Painted from life looking out the window in Samos, Greece. Photo courtesy of Jean Vong.

AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?

BF: The road up to this point took many turns so quickly that I’m wary of speculating about what lies ahead. One thing I do hope about the future is that this moment in which the environment is getting a break from our carbon emissions will help us imagine an alternative relationship to the air we breathe and the sky we look at.

It’s moving to read that the inhabitants in the north Indian city of Jalandhar for the first time in over 30 years are now seeing the Himalayas, 100 miles away. Imagine what it’s like to see those mountains from a city. And what if we all tried to keep the thought in mind now, “Clean air and distant views are possible”?

We’re used to saying that critical thought about values and commitments disrupts ordinary living, but the converse is also true. A disruption to ordinary life can provoke critical thinking about values, priorities, and the habits of life that we’ve stopped noticing. And in November, maybe people in this country will go into their voting booths thinking “more is possible”. The cynical word doesn’t have to be the last word.

“Yellow Brick Road”, oil on linen, 36” x 84”, 2020. Photo courtesy of Jean Vong.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email:

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